Sunday, 30 August 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 6

Here we are at part 6, and I find myself increasingly running out of interesting things to say about nineties anime!  Which isn't the same as suggesting that my enthusiasm is waning - though perhaps it was, thinking about it, until a recent bolt from the blue reminded me of just how great some of the stuff being made at this point could be.  But that's material for the next part, (in which, excitingly I'm considering only including things that are actually some good!), so let's pretend I didn't say anything.

Mind-blowing classics aside for the moment then, that leaves us with a rather questionable bunch of misfits: Adventures With Iczer 3, Black Jack, Ghost Sweeper Mikami and Dragon Half...

Adventures With Iczer 3, 1990, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

I'm starting to think that it would be easier just to review these low-end Manga Video releases with tick boxes.  A misleadingly changed title to disguise something that's actually a sequel?  Check.  A story that makes no damn sense unless you've seen the original that Manga are trying to trick you into not knowing existed?  Check.  A plot that involves overcoming a different villain every episode?  Check.  A dub so catastrophically lazy that character names aren't even pronounced consistently?  Oh yes, big check to that.

What we have here, then, is the six episode OVA more commonly known as Iczer Reborn, a sequel to 1985's Fight!  Iczer One.  This is a significant fact, but not so much so that you can't follow along on the back of a couple of minutes's research.  Alternatively, ignoring the wider backstory entirely is a perfectly valid option and not one likely to affect your enjoyment all that much; it leaves the tale rather lacking in backstory and motivation, but since it mostly revolves around one-dimensional characters punching each other that's not a catastrophic loss.

I realise I'm not exactly selling Adventures With Iczer 3 here, and I'm not particularly trying to.  However it's perhaps not so bad as I'm making out either.  It's brisk and proficient, much like a lot of mid-budget animation from the period, and it has one thing going for it that, say, Casshan doesn't, which is that its protagonist is thoroughly charming.  Iczer 3 is, as far as I could judge, the sister (or perhaps clone) of the Iczer from the first series.  When the original is incapacitated in an opening battle with arch-baddie Neos Gold, the only one who can counter Neos Gold's plan - which pretty much begins and ends with conquering the Earth - is Iczer 3.  The significant flaw here being that Iczer three, superhuman powers aside, is basically a small child.

In theory this should only serve to make the whole thing unbearably irritating.  In practice, Iczer 3 the character adds a level of fun that really elevates the material.  I mean, just look at that cover; where everyone else is scowling, Iczer 3, there in the bottom left, actually looks happy.  Approaching the plot with the giddy excitement of a little kid turns what might be a slog into something unexpectedly engaging.  There were points where I found myself actually concerned for poor, small Iczer, who rarely seemed to know why she was fighting and kept trying to befriend her enemies; there's something unavoidably touching in watching an excitable kid getting beaten up on when they clearly just want to have fun.  It's not enough, mind you, to turn Adventures With Iczer 3 into any sort of a classic, but - combined with some intermittently fun design work and the generally solid animation - it does at least keep it on the right side of entertaining.

Black Jack, 1996, dir: Osamu Dezaki

You don't get a great deal of anime with hotshot surgeons as protagonists, nor do you get many that function primarily as medical thrillers, so if there's one thing Black Jack has going for it, it's that you've probably never seen anything quite like it.  And novelty certainly works in its favour, especially given how much nineties anime tends to pick over a relatively small handful of themes and tropes.  Throughout its first act, in fact, Black Jack has a pleasant air of mystery and it's not at all clear where it might be going.  We know that something is producing people with superhuman abilities, that these superhumans are becoming inexplicably ill, and it's not long before the titular mysterious freelance surgeon gets drawn into events, with the strong implication that there's far more going on than is obviously apparent.

However as the plot staggers onwards - and stagger it does, at a pace that feels increasingly leaden - it becomes apparent that, however interesting some of the ideas Black Jack is kicking about might be, they're leading to fairly familiar places, and by the time the ending rolls around it's hard to remember how novel the whole thing felt only an hour before.  I wanted to be enthusiastic about Black Jack, because it's certainly different, it appears to have a good reputation and full length anime features from this period are relatively hard to track down, but in practice it turns out to be kind of a mess.  Director Osamu Dezaki has a grab-bag of tricks that he seems to trot out entirely at random, and for each occasion that freezing the frame as a Manga-like panel or cutting to thermal vision (yes, really) actually benefits the film there are a dozen where it's purely distracting.  In general, he seems determined to made the worst decision in any given moment, and to be striving for some kind of future-noir aesthetic that would be a good fit for the material if only Dezaki had a better sense of what he was trying to achieve and would pack it in with the stylistic ticks.  Nothing he does can stop Black Jack being a good-looking movie, for the animation quality is well above par for its time, but he's more than capable of rendering a flawed plot not only less intelligible but rather dull and wearisome to boot.

Ghost Sweeper Mikami, 1994, dir: Atsutoshi Umezawa

Ghost Sweeper Mikami is the spin-off movie of a series by the same name, though "movie" is perhaps giving a grand impression that it can't entirely support; the running time comes to about an hour.  It follows - yes, a ghost sweeper, (for which read exorcist,) named - you guessed it! - Mikami, and her team of disparate weirdos, none of whom are introduced here in even the slightest way besides some brief bios on the DVD, but all of whom have few enough character traits each that they're easy to get a handle on.

It's moderately fun, it doesn't outstay its welcome and there are occasional elements that really land, but on the whole it's hard to pick out much about Ghost Sweeper Mikami that's particularly compelling.  I suspect that this suffered some for the fact that I recently saw Geobreeders, which has a not dissimilar concept, not dissimilar characters and a not dissimilar sense of humour, but is beyond question and in every way better.  Where that suffered from having an incomprehensible plot, Mikami has the opposite problem of not much plot at all, and I'd always rather the former than the latter.  Plus, while there's the occasional fun twist in its tale of Mikami and her gang facing off against an ancient big bad, the narrative offers little you won't have seen before.  Really its nothing besides a frame to hang jokes off, but on that note the film defeats itself by taking its non-story a little too seriously and devoting too much energy to it, when it would surely have been better to admit how paper-thin and silly it all is and go for flat out self-mockery.

For which, see...

Dragon Half, 1993, dir: Shin'ya Sadamitsu

Somehow, this nineties anime-obsession of mine has managed to avoid much comedy, and I don't know if that was deliberate or accidental, but boy did I pay for it with Dragon Half.  I mean, if its plot - which follows the unfortunate teenage offspring of a dragon and a dragon-slayer, whose relationship went south in major fashion and ended in somewhat violent marriage, and whose only dream in life is to attend a concert by her favourite pop-star, who also happens to be a dragon-slayer - had any possible hope for serious treatment then it certainly isn't the direction that the creators decided to take it in.

But let's face it, that's an insane concept right there, and Dragon Half couldn't take it less seriously if it tried.  And I mean that literally, because it's an important point: imagine the absolute silliest iteration of "half human, half dragon teenager is in love with pop star dragon-slayer" and I promise you, Dragon Half will be a whole ton more absurd.

This, as far as I'm concerned, is entirely in its favour.

What isn't is that the creators only managed to produce two episodes of an already unambitious four part OVA, which means that its decidedly short and the ending is no ending at all.  Not that I imagine for a moment that the actual ending would have been less ridiculous, but at least it might have offered some sort of closure.  I mean, fifty minutes with Mink, our titular dragon half, is enough to make you fall in love with her a little bit and kind of want things to work out for her, however unlikely that seems given the insanity of the world she lives in and the sheer number of people who decide they want to kill her over the course of a mere two episodes.

In short, this is a tricky one to sign off on.  On the one hand, there are people out there who will (and do) absolutely love it, and while I wouldn't go that far myself, I certainly enjoyed it a great deal.  On the other hand, if your sense of humour doesn't stretch to a certain level of wackiness then I can see this being absolutely tortuous.  That's typified by the animation itself, which I did adore.  It's not unusual in anime for characters to be substituted with less detailed, childlike versions of themselves for the purposes of comedy; however Dragon Half takes this hyper-deformation to a level beyond anything I've seen, with at least four different designs for its protagonist, ranging from the fairly realistic to the impossibly cute and silly, and it switches between them apparently for no other reason than that it can.  Perhaps it shouldn't have been, but frequently that alone was enough to get me laughing.

Oh, and I'd be remiss not to point out that the closing theme - credited to Ludwig van Beethoven, but he surely can't be blamed for the lyrics - is the most blissfully ridiculous thing you're ever likely to encounter.  And actually let's just admit here that I lied, I did love Dragon Half quite a bit, and you should probably just track down a copy right now.


It  occurs to me now that this was a rather rubbish selection.  The only thing I'd wholeheartedly recommend is Dragon Half, and even that's going to fall flat for anyone who doesn't enjoy profoundly silly humour.  Both Ghost Sweeper Mikami and Adventures With Iczer 3 land firmly in the "if you like nineties anime and see them cheap then you could do worse" category, which is about as half-hearted as a recommendation can get.  (Really, I'm not sure I'd even go that far with Ghost Sweeper Mikami.)  Whereas Black Jack I hated a little bit, but perhaps unfairly so, judging by the strong reviews it seems to get.

Ah well.  I'll definitely do better next time, if only because there's going to be one film in there that I unhesitatingly adored...

[Other posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5]

Friday, 21 August 2015

Nine Worlds 2015, Part 2: The Not So Good

[You can find part 1, "The Very Good Indeed," here.]

So as I suggested in part one, I don't want to rail too much against this year's Nine Worlds because I had a great time there and overall I felt, as always, that it got the vast majority of things right.  And wouldn't it be nice to just focus on the good stuff for a change?  But I can't help thinking it would be worse to skip mentioning a few complaints, many of which other people were vocally making, than to keep quiet - if for no other reason than that I'd love to see Nine Worlds thriving ten years from now and small cracks have a way of growing into gaping chasms, or some such metaphor.

But let's start at the beginning.  For the first point at which I got concerned was a couple of months before the doors even opened, when I discovered that two of the panels I'd been confirmed for on the Comics track, one of which I was down to moderate, had been cancelled.  The reasons apparently came down to conflicts over scheduling and scuffling over space, and the result was some potentially great panels left on the cutting room floor.  I won't go into the other scheduling problems that followed, if only because the parties concerned were ultimately brilliant and lovely in getting them resolved, but suffice to say that there were problems and that they could surely have been avoided.

What seemed to be lacking was a level of coordination that crossed the boundaries of the different tracks, and that was also more or less what I took away from the event itself.  Nine Worlds, as its name implies, is an entity formed of many moving parts, and that's a huge portion of its charm - though one that always threatens to end up being plain chaotic.  However this was the first year when it felt like those parts were not only not moving in unison but were actually draining energy from each other.  There was, ultimately, too much content for the space, to the point where it seemed padded.  And some of that content was so sparse or ill-considered that, for me, it just didn't warrant its existence.  (Long-term readers will know what a hopeless film and Anime nerd I am, so when I say that there wasn't a thing on the Anime or film tracks that teased my interest even slightly, that surely should mean something.)

More aggravating than any of that, though, was the rate at which the better panel items filled to capacity, and that the organisers' solution was to suggest arriving well in advance.  From what I heard, for that to work might mean turning up fifteen to twenty minutes early, and really, who wants to spend their convention time like that?  Of all the available solutions - larger spaces, more versatile seating arrangements, duplicating content - pushing the problem onto the punter was surely not the best.  I remember making this exact same point last year and I really hoped they'd get it sorted out, so that the organizers chose to go in the opposite direction and just tell everyone to accept it is flat-out disappointing.

That and the oversight issue aside, however, I think it's fair to say that most of the remaining problems this year loop back to one inescapable point: Nine Worlds is too big for the Radisson Blu.  Even if that weren't the case, the Radisson is increasingly revealing itself to be an undeserving and rather crummy venue.  The weird floor layout left entire tracks stranded, there weren't enough of the large spaces that would have alleviated the seating issues I talked about above, and in general the closest the hotel staff came to acknowledging that there was a major international convention occurring within its walls was to be a bit surly about the whole thing.

Or in one particular case, very surly indeed!  I mentioned the bar in part one, but what I didn't clarify there was how the staff were deliberately omitting the con discount of 20% and then adding on a further 12.5% service charge for some of the most dismal service imaginable, or how they were selling drinks in smaller measures than advertised for the same already-preposterous prices, or how pointedly rude they got when any of their shenanigans were challenged in even the smallest way.  Or, for that matter, how they shut up shop altogether at one in the morning, which I struggle to believe is what was agreed with Nine Worlds.  As much as it feels like a petty thing to moan about in a universe of infinite possibility and suffering, a good bar is the heart of a good convention, and in this case it proved to be a worm-ridden, vitality-sapping heart.

Now all of those venue-related issues have been manageable for smaller conventions; I've enjoyed time spent at the Radisson in the past, and even managed to laugh at the conniving antics of those bar staff.  But for this year's Nine Worlds they were outright damaging, and I can't imagine a scenario where such problems won't get worse in years to come.  Let's not forget that even in its first year, Nine Worlds ambitiously straddled two different conference hotels.  Trying to cram more and more content into a smaller space is not a game you can hope to win, and if that was evident last year, it was really achingly obvious this time around.

With all of that said, let me reiterate that I still consider Nine Worlds the best UK convention going; there are many things it gets right that no one else is even trying to do, and for that it should be applauded at every available opportunity.  It's barely possible to believe that it's only three years old, when cons like Eastercon have been around for decades and can still deliver the kind of shoddy performance we saw earlier in the year.  In the grand scheme of things, these are pretty minor concerns I've picked up on; they didn't ruin my enjoyment and they probably wouldn't keep me from going again next year.

But they do need fixing, Nine Worlds, they really do.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Nine Worlds 2015, Part 1: The Very Good Indeed

I would say that of all the cons I've been to - and that's a rather high number, now - this year's Nine Worlds was, on average, the one I enjoyed the most.  And it occurs to me that, for once, I can say specifically why that was, rather than having to make up vague nonsense to cover the fact that I can't remember why I was having fun because the alcohol I was pouring into myself to help produce that fun killed off all of the relevant brain cells.  I think it's fair to say, in fact, that the hours I spent drinking in the company of friends both old and new, whilst tremendously entertaining, was for once not even my favourite waste of time.

(For this, I have to thank the main bar of the Radisson Blu and its combination of abominable service with the most hysterically absurd prices, but more on that in part 2.)

So if my abiding memories from Nine Worlds aren't of loitering in the bar then just what the hell did I get up to?  Well, a great deal of what went right can be laid at the feet of the Comics track and its human-whirlwind ringleader Hazel Robinson, who only ever seemed to be sitting down for long enough to moderate one of the most well-moderated panels I've ever been fortunate enough to be a part of.  From my point of view, the first of those - with Ed Fortune, Sally Jane Thompson and Alasdair Stuart - was on How to Break Into Comics, and given that I personally didn't feel like I had much of a clue how you'd achieve such a thing, it seemed to actually generate a ton of good advice.  Then on the Sunday I had what I'm just going to flat out declare to be my favourite panel of all time, The Humanitarian Element, with Roz Kaveney and Alasdair again.  The topic of humanitarianism in comics keyed in from Hazel's point of view to her day job working for the extraordinary Médecins Sans Frontières and from mine primarily because of the post-apocalyptic superhero novel I began writing a mere couple of weeks ago, and in a world where panel topics seem to get recycled ad tedium and beyond it was extraordinarily refreshing to be discussing a topic that felt genuinely fresh and meaningful.  (Even if we did go off on some deeply silly tangents; Hazel's attempts to summarize the Avengers vs X-Men crossover from a couple of years back still makes me chuckle.)

While that was mostly it for my official involvement with the Comics track, it did lead into the weekend's other great time sink.  Having made vague promises to help out with a boardgaming night that Hazel had planned for the Friday evening, I'd optimistically lugged along a copy of Galaxy Trucker, and was surprised when not only did I manage to persuade people to play it with me, I succeeded in explaining the rules not too terribly and it wound up being a pretty classic game.  (Everything went brutally wrong in the final round, which if you know Galaxy Trucker at all you'll understand is absolutely the best thing that can happen.)

Thus it was that when, on the Saturday, I turned up for one of the few program items I was really eager to go to and found it full, it occurred to me that for once I had an option other than drifting over to the bar.  And thus it was that I spent almost the entire rest of the day playing board games (in this case Splendor and King of Tokyo) with a variety of very friendly strangers.  I don't know that anything sums up why I like Nine Worlds so much as the fact that there was a large, well-organised space set aside for that and a comfortable enough environment that it was really easy to get games going.  Seriously, it's easy to ignore how special a thing that it is, but it couldn't work without a ton of thought and effort - and for that, Nine Worlds organisers, I salute you.

That takes us, more or less, back to the Sunday, when I just about managed to drag myself in in time for an early meeting of the Super-Relaxed Fantasy Club, only to pick up the handouts for my Monsterclass that afternoon and discover that they hadn't been stapled together.  Cue a little bit of panic on my part, (I wanted people to treasure these things for years to come, and what madman treasures an unstapled handout?) which eventually drew in half the staff of Nine Worlds, quickly descended into low comedy - the stapler was locked in a room which no one had the key to, but was also empty of staples, those being kept by an entirely different bunch of people, and I'm not even making this up - and ended with me wandering into another hotel and asking if I could borrow a stapler from them.  (They were really nice about it.)  Anyway, the running about burned off some of my nervous energy over the prospect of delivering my first ever workshop, and though my stress levels started to climb again over the fact that a scheduling clash meant that I basically had to run there from the Humanitarianism panel, I managed to make it just in time.

Lo and behold, it seemed to go quite well.  My biggest worries were that no one would turn up or that those who did would expect me to do all the talking*, and neither of those things happened even slightly.  The room was filled to capacity with, I think, twelve people, and everyone was eager enough to get involved that it ended us as much more of a discussion than a lecture, which was precisely what I'd hoped for.  That aside, to get such an intelligent, thoughtful group was more than I'd dared expect, and made an hour and a half fly by.  (It was supposed to be an hour, and the fact that we overran massively without anyone showing signs of boredom seemed to me a mark of success.)  With the proviso that there's not a whole hell of a lot you can teach people about the nuts and bolts of short story writing in an hour and a half, I felt like I got a few good points in - not to mention, of course, supplying some beautifully stapled handouts.

There were other highlights, but they were less directly Nine Worlds related.  It was a pleasure to have lunch on the Sunday with my editor Lee Harris, and getting dive-bombed by a barn owl in the early hours of Sunday morning was a pleasant shock; who knew they had nature at Heathrow?  For that matter, I suppose that the other reason I had a slightly better time than I've had in the past was precisely because I was looking after myself that bit better.  I didn't waste too much time nursing hangovers, I ate relatively proper meals, and I went to bed ... well, at three o'clock on the Sunday morning, but even that's not terrible by my standards.  It also helped that I was staying in a much nicer place then I normally manage, the Heathrow Hilton, which meant that what sleep I had was actually pretty good sleep.

And that, I think, about sums up the good stuff, which it should be obvious by this point was clearly in the vast majority.  Still, it wasn't the whole story, and since this wouldn't be a David Tallerman con write-up if I didn't grouse at least a little, what say we meet back here in a couple of days time so I can do just that?  At the very least, I can guarantee more vitriol aimed at those accursed bar staff...

* Actually, my biggest worry was that I'd realise I wasn't wearing any trousers and that the group would consist entirely of my primary school teachers dressed as the great dictators of history, but fortunately that one was always going to be an outside risk.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Going Gothic

It occurred to me recently that I can trace my desire to write short genre fiction pretty clearly back to a certain time in my youth, and that in fact I can go further than that: I can pin it down to the two books that introduced me to just what short fantasy and science-fiction stories could accomplish and how awe-inspiring that could be.  They were anthologies by the now apparently long-defunct Chancellor Press, who used to have a thing for knocking out cheap but rather brilliant editions of classic work: these two books in particular had the imaginative titles of The SF Collection and Great Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  And only recently, as I was hunting around for some strong opening paragraphs to share at my Nine Worlds short fiction-writing workshop, did I realise just how terrific those books were, and how much they'd lit the fuse on my passion for genre stories.  Looking back, I suspect there was a part of me, even then, that longed to see my name in a book like that, in the company of all those awesomely talented individuals.

Cut to the present, when I discovered that Flame Tree Publishing, (who seem to be doing not dissimilar things to Chancellor Press, though in infinitely classier fashion), had opened submissions for three anthologies that would mix classic fiction with more modern work, in outrageously sexy deluxe hardcover editions.  Needless to say, I went for it, though without much hope of getting in, and I suppose also needless to say since I'm blogging about it, I did in fact manage to land a story in one of them.  That particular story was one of my all-time favourites, (and yeah, I know I shouldn't have favourites, but what can you do?  I bet even people with loads of kids do the same), Jenny's Sick, as originally published in Lightspeed back in December of 2010.

Anyway, we're now mere weeks from publication, and here's what those puppies are going to look like:
Now I guess what I'm trying to say, in typically roundabout fashion, is that this is pretty much a dream come true.  These are just extravagantly beautiful books; I mean, if you want to get an idea of how gorgeous they are in the flesh - um, the paper-flesh - no, wait, that sounds worse - then you can read about it here.  But as much as that's a big deal, (and this is, after all, the first time I've had anything out in hardcover), it isn't the big deal, and it certainly isn't what got me thinking about those old Chancellor Press books.  No, that was more to do with some of the names I'm going to be in there with.  Like I said, all three editions have a mix of classic and more recent work, and those classic stories - well, there's a few people in there I'd heard of, let's put it that way.  Like, in the case of the Science Fiction volume, oh say, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Or H. Rider Haggard.  Or Jack London.  Or Jules goddamn Verne.*

So ... beautiful book, amazing company, possibly the story of mine that I'm most proud of.  Yup, this is pretty much the short story sale to end all short story sales.  Wait, no, I shouldn't say that, that makes it sound like I'm never going to sell anything again ever.  Or that I'm going to die.  Fortunately I just did - sell another story that is, not die - but even if I hadn't, this would have been a hell of a note to end on.  As it is, I'm just thrilled to be a part of something that would have made the teenage book-geek me go weak at the knees, and maybe think that growing up to be a writer might not be the absolutely worst idea in the world...

* I'm reliably formed that this is how Jules Verne used to introduce himself.  Jules Verne was kind of a hardass.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 5

One thing I've realised in the last couple of weeks is that this blog series might conceivably never end.  Every time I think I've exhausted all of the nineties anime still available, I'll stumble over a new vein.  Once you start digging, its surprising what you can turn up; the more I go on, the more it becomes possible to imagine a future where I basically never stop discovering new stuff to watch.

On the other hand, it's even easier to imagine a future where I stop finding good new stuff to watch.  But I'm steadily coming to accept that, though a great deal of nineties anime has been forgotten for perfectly sensible reasons, that's not necessarily a reason to view it without a degree of interest and fondness.  If nothing else, it's thrilling to watch any art form develop at such a pace; asides perhaps from traditional film-making in its first decades, it's hard to think of any medium that's evolved so utterly or broadened its scope so widely in a mere handful of years.

Anyway, enough self-justification; there's nineties anime to be watched!  This week: Patlabor, Casshan: Robot Hunter, Geobreeders and The Dark Myth...

Patlabor: The Movie, 1989, dir: Mamoru Oshii

I should confess to a bit of a cheat on this one - and not for the usual reason, either, though this is indeed another late-eighties picture that I'm lumping into the wrong decade.  No, this time it's something far more insidious than that: I'm reviewing a movie I've seen before, and which is by one of my absolutely favourite directors, Mamoru Oshii of Ghost in the Shell fame.

Patlabor would be interesting work, in fact, if for no other reason than that you can practically see a masterly talent taking form over its hundred minute running time.  I don't know what Oshii's pre-Patlabor career was like, but it's difficult to imagine that anything in it was such a perfect marriage for his characteristic style and concerns as this.  As such, Patlabor is on its surface a giant robot movie, but one that once you delve even a little bit deeper turns out to be something considerably more interesting.  It spends a good deal of its running time posing as a rather sedate police procedural, before the last half hour transforms into a masterclass of an action movie conclusion, which constantly ramps its threat in imaginative, ever more exciting ways.  It does both of those things exceptionally well, but it's perhaps the first two thirds that bear most of Oshii's stamp.  There is, for example, a lovely, meditative sequence of the two police detectives going about their business, which does great work of visually emphasizing in light-handed fashion one of the film's core themes: that there'll always be places and people left behind by technological progress, and that the faster and more uncontrolled the progress the deeper and more permanent the damage.

For a movie with doubts about the unchecked advance of technology, however, Patlabor had no qualms about being at the cutting edge of its field; given that it's now more than 25 years old, it stands up astonishingly well.  Few anime directors are as infatuated with detail as Oshii, and that tendency was already fully on display here; only the colour palette and facial designs really date it at all.  It benefits, too, from a typically marvelous score from Oshii's regular collaborator, Kenji Kawai.  And, impressively for its time, it's an early demonstration of Oshii's leaning towards highly capable female protagonists.  That epic finale, for example, neatly flips its gender cliches: while the men are holed up in the control room doing tech stuff and getting stressed, its the women out there doing the actual giant robot fighting.

In short, Patlabor is a genuine classic, and a genuine milestone.  It's not, perhaps, as definitive or redefining as Ghost in the Shell would prove to be, but nonetheless Oshii's achievement here is tough to fault.

Casshan: Robot Hunter, 1993, dir: Hiroyuki Fukushima

Casshan, (or Casshern, depending on who you ask and when), has had a great many outings over the course of some fifty years, including a live-action film - which I remember as being entertaining, if not necessarily good - and a more recent short series with the cheery title of Casshern Sins.  But the one we're looking at is, to my knowledge, the character's second incarnation, which was a four part OVA revival of the seventies original.

Now I get the impression from my limited research that this re-imagining was intended to be rather more adult than that seventies take.  However, if you're sharp-eyed, a look at the poster will tell you exactly what passed for adult in the minds of the producers.  Yeah, it's that staple of nineties anime, stripping your heroine half naked for no damn reason other than the very cheapest titillation!  And boy does it stuck out in Casshan, which otherwise is just about the goofiest thing you've seen.  Seriously, that needless flash of awkwardly animated bosoms aside, Casshan is not very adult at all - and frankly all the better for it.

It's hard indeed, for example, to dislike a series where the hero has for a sidekick a fire-breathing robot dog called Friender.  The presence of Friender alone introduces a giddy, kid-making-stuff-up-on-the-fly aspect that extends all the way through Casshan's most entertaining moments.  As such, it's worst when it's concentrating on its dour plot or its flaccid romance, and in the English dub at least, whenever Casshan is talking, since Steve Bulen inflicts on our teenage protagonist a voice that makes him sound like a forty year old ham actor in an amateur production of King Lear.  And since those elements take up quite a portion of the running time, it frequently threatens to not be too much fun; but then another absurd robot design shows up, or Casshan punches something, or Friender does anything at all, and suddenly it's entertaining again.

Does that qualify as a recommendation?  Probably not.  But you could do worse for a couple of hours of silly nostalgia-watching, and there are enough copies floating about that you can pick it up second hand for next to nothing.

Geobreeders, 1998, dir: Yûji Moriyama

Once again I have to admit to a degree of bias, in that Geobreeders was the first Manga I ever read, and as such has a soft spot in my heart that made me both giddily excited to discover that this anime adaptation was available and all but unable to consider it with any kind of objectivity.  It's also another slight cheat of my own rules for these articles, in that I've tried to focus on works that are fairly readily available, whereas Geobreeders is tough to find cheaply, (though it's worth pointing out that the DVD advertised as Region 1 is actually all region-compatible.)

With that baggage out in the open, what do we have here?  Well, Geobreeders follows the adventures of Kagura Total Security, an almost entirely female organisation devoted (in so much as they get paid for it) to the eradication of phantom cats, which are basically were-cats with the ability to infect and manipulate technology and some kind of secret, most likely evil, agenda.  And if a lot of stuff gets exploded in ludicrous fashion in the meantime, Kagura are absolutely okay with that.

Geobreeders the film, however, explains very little of this indeed - which could be a failing or a strength, depending on how you choose to consider it.  It opens with the false start of some comedy credits that won't make a damn bit of sense to anyone not already familiar with the property, then throws at us an in media res opening sequence that makes only a little more sense, then dashes straight on to its first big action set-piece, still with only the most tangential attempts made to fill us in on background, characters or anything much else.

All of this I love, and makes Geobreeders what it is, which is to say, hugely fun and absurdly fast-paced.  This is true of a lot of anime, but I've never seen it be truer than here.  Geobreeders really has no interest in anything that slows its forward momentum, it doesn't give half a damn about its own plot, and what's rarer, that carefree attitude is coupled with a director who actually seems genuinely in tune with his material.  It's fun and stupid and I can't help but adore it.  That said, a little research reveals that this first OVA is set quite far into the Manga, and I can only imagine how little sense this would make if you hadn't at least a passing knowledge of the books; too, it should be noted that there's a fair bit of gratuitous female semi-nudity, for anyone who finds that bothersome.  Which I generally tend to, thinking about it, but I can't find it in my heart to climb on that high horse against a series where pretty much the entire cast are female, and all of them are, (whatever their comedic failings and tendency to needlessly blow things up), basically excellent at what they do.

The Dark Myth, 1990, dir's: Takashi Annô, Tomomi Mochizuki

Where do you even begin with a film like The Dark Myth?  Certainly not with the plot, for there's barely anything here that justifies the term; what we have instead is a series of conversations, mostly about either history or theology, crammed into a loose narrative framework that mostly serves to switch up the location every so often.  There are a number of characters but barely any characterisation, since no one does much besides spout exposition, (most of which is made incomprehensible by the fact that it consists of little besides names of Japanese historical figures, places and Asian deities), and there's only one, brief scene that comes close to deserving the word action.  There's also not much in the way of dramatic tension: things that we're told will happen happen, then more things happen, then it stops.

And here's the thing: I loved every confusing, expository, audience-defying moment.  Frankly, had there been no plot at all I could probably still have enjoyed it, for the animation is above average and well directed, a mix of more than usually realistic character designs with some frequently lovely painted backdrops, often of Japanese scenery.  Most importantly, there's some real imagination on display - the high-point surely a sequence in which protagonist Takeshi walks in a daze and his state is represented by whiting out everything but him, which is hard to describe but remarkably effective in practice.  But really, there's a great deal to catch the eye here, and as much to catch the mind; even when it's not entirely clear what's going on, Dark Myth is frequently striking.  And to top it all off, we have another score by Kenji Kawai, the closing theme of which is one of my favourite pieces of anime music in quite a while.

None of this makes what's going on any less confusing, but it certainly does make it go down a lot easier.  And in fairness, once you get into the rhythm of what Dark Myth is doing - and assuming you don't find those first few, incomprehensible minutes an insurmountable hurdle - it's easy to be on side with.  The barrages of names, the theological conundrums, aren't terribly important so long as you manage to keep track of the broad strokes; whenever something actually significant happens, the film is quite happy to signpost it, and you sense that it isn't so much being deliberately obtuse as trying to fit a great deal in, or perhaps simply suffering in translation.

Which is rather a crucial point - for of everything that Manga Video chose to cock up with their shockingly unambitious DVD releases, Dark Myth suffers worse than most.  A few expository extras, maybe some historical notes, would have made all the difference, and the option to watch in the original Japanese - not offered here, as with all of Manga's budget releases - is surely nothing short of essential.  For that matter, if the transfer wasn't so brutally ugly, I suspect we might be looking at a film hailed for its above average visuals instead of one utterly ignored by everyone.

At any rate, I'm not certain where this leaves us.  I can't possibly not recommend something so utterly interesting and ideas-laden, but there's no getting around the fact that we're looking at a limited audience indeed.  I literally can't find one review with anything nice to say about The Dark Myth!  Then again, I'd read some of those reviews before I watched it, so perhaps the trick is to go in forewarned; which means that, if you've read this far and don't think it sounds utterly terrible then just maybe you'll get as much out of it as I did.


Are these posts getting longer?  They are, aren't they?  I mean, fair enough, I had a lot to say about Patlabor, but did I really need four paragraphs on Casshan: Robot Hunter of all things?  On the other hand, it would appear that this is the first time I've been at least tentatively positive about everything.  Clearly the series is heading in the right direction; or else whatever was left of my critical faculties has finally dissolved under the weight of too much nineties anime.  Which, come to think of it, is much more likely.  And probably for the best!  Because as I noted at the start, there's barely an end in sight...

[Other posts in this interminable series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4]

Thursday, 23 July 2015

My Nine Worlds 2015 Schedule

With this year's Nine Worlds just around the corner - well, two whole weeks away - I thought it was about time I got my schedule out into the world.  I'm fairly busy this time, at least in comparison to anything I've been at in the last year or so, and I'm also set for a pretty intimidating first.  I mean, having got my head around appearing on panels, then moderating panels, and then appearing on a game show with a live audience, (okay, I didn't even slightly get my head around that), I thought I'd faced all the fears I have to face.  But no!  Just like uncle H.P. taught us, there will always be new existential terrors to stare down, and I'll be doing some good, hard staring at this year's Nine Worlds.  But more on that in a moment.  Because before the really scary stuff, we have...

- How To Break Into Comics - But seriously, how?; 13:30 PM Friday

I specifically asked to be on this, because I have no idea how to break into comics and I'm hoping someone will tell me.  There must be a way!  I really thought I had it when I sent Stan Lee my severed ear, but no, not even a reply.  Although I'm pretty certain he was wearing it in place of his own for his Ant-Man cameo, the goof.  Anyway, I'm sure there'll be some great advice flying around on this one - but expect me to be the one listening to it, not giving it.

(Please don't tell the organisers this, I think I've got them them fooled.)

- The Humanitarian Element: Superheroic Ethics - Heroism, compromise & the reality of intervening under fire; 11:45 AM Sunday

Whereas this I actually have a serious interest in, and will probably be saying serious things in a very serious voice.  (You've probably never heard my serious voice.)  I've noticed in recent months that I'm getting awfully bored of superheroes who behave like thugs, and of seeing stuff get smashed for no good reason, and of vigilantes who never actually seem to help anyone.  I've got to a point where every time a house gets 'sploded or a car gets trashed I start worrying over insurance policies.  I am, in fact, so dubious about needlessly destructive superheroes these days that I'm about to write a damn novel on the subject.  So come, hear me rant!  (Or else hear me get shouted down by people better informed than I!)

- Monsterclass - How to really write a short story; 13:00 PM Sunday

And here, at the end, we get to the really alarming bit.  Yeah, that would be me teaching an hour-long workshop on how to write a short story.  Which, okay, is at least something I can claim a limited degree of knowledge on, having knocked out over a hundred of the things and sold somewhere around seventy.  But have I learned anything through that process?  If I have, can I possibly convey it to other human beings?  For that matter, are there other human beings irresponsible enough to listen to me talk at them for a whole hour?  And if I can't even answer questions like these, what chance do I have of teaching an hour long workshop?  Ha!  Well we'll see, all right.  Seriously, though, I'm determined to do a good job on this, if only because it's quite the privilege to be asked.


So there we have it: my Nine Worlds itinerary.  I have to admit, I'm looking forward to this one; I get to talk about some interesting stuff, and as much as it's a bit frightening, I'm buzzed about the idea of having a go at running a workshop.

Which, come to think of it, I really should be planning, instead of writing this...

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

EdgeLit Impressions

This Saturday just passed was my first experience of Edge Lit, which I'd gone out of my way to make
it to this year having been told repeatedly by a fair number of people that - despite being just the one day - it was one of the better UK conventions.  And lo and behold, that was entirely true, though I'm still not one hundred percent sure as to why.

Certainly the content was the usual mix of launches, talks, readings and panels, and at least when it came to the last of those, it would be a stretch to suggest that there was anything being said that hadn't been covered elsewhere.   The only one I made it to was pleasant enough; a polite chat amongst some excellent writers saying interesting things, albeit at a volume that wasn't quite up to the task of such a big space.  Honestly, speaking as someone who's desperate to see the convention scene get the shake-up it's long overdue, the content side seemed to me a bit above fine - and under other circumstances, that would probably have left me grumbling.
Me, Del and Kim Lakin-Smith, a bar.

In the case of Edge Lit, though, it just didn't bother me a great deal.  And despite what I said above, it occurs to me that I actually have a really good idea why that was: it's absolutely the right size for the thing that it is, and it has absolutely the perfect venue, in the shape of Derby's Quad.  That space was just right to make everything feel friendly and intimate, where so many conventions are sprawling and anonymous and kind of intimidating.  And that sort of consideration ran through a great deal of Edge Lit.  Why aren't more conventions towards the centre of the country, where folks from both north and south can attend?  In cities where you can get a cheap room for the night in a good hotel?  And where there are plenty of places to pop out for food and drink nearby?  The Quad was just a damn fine venue, and the scale of everything was exactly right for the event it was, and the event used the available space exceedingly well.  With all the program items within a couple of minutes walk and a large, well-staffed bar for any quiet periods, it was downright tough to get bored.

Now, if some of what I've said sounds like damning praise then it isn't meant to be; or rather, it maybe is, but of UK conventions in general rather than Edge Lit specifically.  And though there was a considerable proportion of professional authors there, I can absolutely see that I wasn't the target audience; with its welcome emphasis on workshops, Edge Lit is clearly aiming primarily at up-and-coming writers, and I've no doubt that a few years ago I'd have found it to be just about the most useful and enlightening thing imaginable.

These days, however, my requirement for a convention has a lot more to do with a nice big bar and a location that doesn't cost me a fortune to get to, and like I said, Edge Lit nailed that stuff right to the table.  Also, as someone who's always impressed when people get the little things right, I feel I should mention that it had by far the most professionally produced program I've yet seen and the first goodie bag to contain something I actually really wanted, in the shape of a downright marvelous CD compilation put together by author John Connolly.  (Seriously, if you were there and haven't given it a spin yet, do right now.)  And lastly, since I still feel like this praise has been a little on the watered-down side, let's finish by pointing out that I had a bloody good day, that I got to hang out with a whole bunch of terrific people, and that I will certainly be going back again next year.